January 17, 2012: Isla Negra

After dealing with the morning explosion of work emails, I galloped forth into the day. I was intent upon doing the last Absolutely-Must-Do item on my list: Isla Negra, Pablo Neruda’s house by the sea, where he and his wife are buried. I’ve heard many people say that this house is the best of his houses. It especially appealed to me because of its setting, in a small town by the sea, in contrast to the more urban locations of his other two houses, giant Santiago and busy Valparaíso.

To get to Isla Negra, I took a micro to the bus terminal. This was actually good practice: last time I took this micro, I disembarked too late, and this time, I got off too early; hopefully, on Friday (when I head to the airport), my timing will be spot-on. From the terminal, I asked around until I found the bus company that had buses to Isla Negra. The next one was leaving in less than five minutes, so I hopped on board.

The bus ride lasted about an hour and a half. We passed through a lot of landscapes that were familiar to me from previous bus-trips, and then a series of unfamiliar small towns, like Algarrobo and El Quisco. Eventually, I glimpsed the ocean off to our right, and shortly thereafter, we had arrived at the Isla Negra stop. I jumped off there, and was pleased to discover that this stop was a mere block from the side street that led down to the Neruda house. I had worried about not having all the logistics in place beforehand, but they fell into place beautifully.

I walked down to the house on a curved dirt road. It was a very pleasant neighborhood: squat, well-cared-for houses, flowers climbing all over the fences, bristle-like trees, and the bright blue Pacific shimmering in the background. It seemed like as nice a seaside town as any in the U.S., and I wondered (a) if it really was that nice, or if my untrained eyes deceived me, and (b) if it was this nice when Neruda settled here, or if it had sprung up around him.

Neruda's neighborhood.

I reached the casa, which had a much fancier setup than La Sebastiana. There was a big stone building with a waiting area, a large restaurant, a bar, and a gift shop. They stagger the times when people begin the museum tour, so that it doesn’t get too crowded inside the house. I gave my name, and then walked around outside. His house had nothing between it and the ocean but an attractive beach, so wherever you went, the waves murmured quietly in the background. In the yard, there was a giant metal statue, a representation of his fish symbol; on the roof of the house, I spied a weathervane also shaped like the fish symbol.

Giant metal fish, what ho!
Grinning sea-horse statue.

When they called my name on the PA, I headed to the house, picked up my audioguide, and began my self-guided tour. Neruda imbued his house with symbolism: it runs north to south, like Chile, and this geography was reflected in the design and decoration. The rooms of the northern half were suggestive of the interior of a boat, reflecting his passion for the sea and his insistence on staying on land. The southerly rooms felt like train cars, in homage to his train-conductor father. He also grew up in the south, so the most southerly room is filled with artifacts and decor reminiscent of his childhood in Southern Chile. As a person walks from the north to the south of the house, s/he also goes back in time, to Neruda’s mind.

Stony tower.

Near the entry, there was a big locomotive engine “toy” of Neruda’s parked in the gravel. The first part of the house that I saw was an access-point to the second floor (closed to the public), with wooden stairs and a small porch, which was supported by two giant wagon-wheels. There was a cat sleeping on the porch, which pleased me — an immortal feline of Neruda’s, perhaps.

A child at heart.
"Ha. You tourists aren't allowed up here, but I may sleep here, or caper here, as I like."
Spot the afore-pictured cat.

As at La Sebastiana, photos were forbidden inside the house, so I have no photos of the interior for you — naught to offer but words. Luckily, this house also had a lot of interesting things outside the house, so I compensated by taking enthusiastic amounts of photos outdoors. If you’d like, you can look at the museum’s website, to get a visual idea of the interior.

Translation of the writing over the entrance: "I returned from my travels. I navigated constructing happiness."

The tour began in the living room, which was a large stone room with wooden stairs leading up to a rope-and-wood loft that seemed like a giant crow’s nest. There was a fireplace, around which were arranged various couches and chairs, two of which were brought back from Spain. All around the room, hanging off the walls, were large rescued ship-figureheads (mascarones), from voluptuous to ethereal, each of whom Neruda had invented a backstory for. Two life-size wooden angels from France hung elegantly from the ceiling. While the loft was not open to foot traffic, I could peer up into it enough to see rows of empty shelves; the audioguide told me that this was where Neruda used to house his library. What a dream, a library in a loft! All around the room were traces of his nautical leanings, from the ship’s-wheel coffee table to a glass-encased model ship sitting on a table near the window (the ship of the old Spanish marine who had sold Neruda the house).

From there, I proceeded back through the shell-lined entry hall and into the dining room. At the center of this room, there was a circular dining table, laden with colored water glasses. The original placemats were still present: Neruda would sit at the head of the table, and had a placemat picturing marine navigation tools, in accordance with his position as “captain,” while all the other placemats had ship artwork. In a corner, there was a tall, thin Mary and Jesus statue from Easter Island (like this), while an elegant depiction of Venus hung on the opposite wall. There was a large, enclosed pantry in the corner, which held a diverse collection of dinnerware and other oddments. There were also two more figureheads in this room, a blue-eyed lass and a bearded fellow. The audioguide informed me that Neruda had originally faced them towards each other, hoping they might fall in love, but it hadn’t worked out, as she preferred to gaze at the sea than at the male figurehead. The bearded mascarón still faced her determinedly, but her blue painted eyes faced the large sea-view windows.

I proceeded up a very narrow stairway to Neruda and Matilde’s bedroom. Unsurprisingly, this room had a perfect view of the nearby ocean, with floor-to-ceiling windows taking up two walls of the little room. On the bedside table, there was a telescope that Neruda would often use to spy out on the waves. There were two closet-areas, which revealed that Neruda really liked hats: he had a whole herd of them, from straw hats to silly hats. I also got to see his famous red poncho (that he wears in many photographs); he got it in Southern Chile and was very proud of it. The tuxedo that he wore to accept his Nobel Prize was also on display.

I descended by a different set of stairs, and returned to the outside (the north and south parts of the house are separate buildings). There was a wooden structure in the shape of a half-star, hung with six bells of various sizes. Next to it, there was a grounded red boat. Evidently Neruda would often sit in this boat (on land) to have drinks with friends; he maintained that that was more than enough sailing for him.

Fish mosaics, which lined the entire house.

The audioguide had me walk around the outside edge of the north building, where there were large windows into a bottle-room and a bar. Neruda collected many, many things; the bottle-room was a place where he displayed his collection of old, interestingly-shaped bottles (shaped like violins, or hands holding knives, or busty ladies). It may have also been used as a storage room for liquors, but I’m not sure.

I'm not sure why you'd want to drink from a hand-holding-knife bottle.

Next door, I peered into the windows of the bar, which seemed like it would have been an enjoyable place. In the back, there was a bar cluttered with round bottles, statues, and other oddments. In the front, Neruda had designed it to look like a Parisian café, with small numbered tables and plush red chairs. Mobiles with various images hung from the ceiling. The ceiling of the bar was more old-fashioned, with rows of beams. He had carved the names of all his good friends who had died onto those beams, so that when he and his friends were socializing, the departed would be with them. (He and Matilde’s bedroom was right above the bar; he said this was his way of sleeping beside the departed.)

Do you see the names on the ceiling?

Once I had finished poking around the windows into the north building, I entered the south part of the house. The entry hall for this building was called Pasillo de las máscaras (Hall of Masks), as the walls were hung with masks from multiple countries. There was also a collection of tiny model ships, some bottles of sand he’d been gifted (I forget from where), and a collection of miniscule model instruments, in wood and mother-of-pearl. This man really collected stuff, but it’s interesting stuff.

The pasillo led into Neruda’s study room. To my delight, I saw an insect collection immediately on the right as I entered. It had marvelous pinned butterflies, giant beetles (including some Southern Chilean ones he remembered from his youth), and two small hummingbirds. In addition to everything else he did, he was an enthusiastic amateur entomologist and ornithologist. This was a darker room, but there was a window, under which lay the writing-desk where he wrote much of Canto General and other works.

Based on my two visits to La Sebastiana, I have developed an excellent museo-browsing strategy. First, I would listen to what the audioguide had to tell me. Then, I would go back and look through the entire room again, in silence, and I’d be able to notice many tiny details that had escaped me the first time, when the audioguide was chatting away. Many times, the audioguide would tell me, “You’ve doubtless noticed this other thing at the far end of the room,” and I’d mentally scold it, “No, I was still looking at these intricate little mineral eggs. Don’t rush me!”

The next room was another living room, as no poet’s home is complete without two living rooms. This one had a beautiful mosaic on one wall, made of quartz and onyx (and created by the same artist who made the Mar del Sur mosaic at La Sebastiana, a woman who was a friend of his). There were scattered chairs and a table covered with musical instruments.

The second room led directly into another room, with an old metal gate hanging open between them. The following room was the biblioteca (library). This was one of the rooms that really felt like a traincar. There were some beautiful old celestial-model maps on the wall, painted on glass. There was also a motley collection of portraits of various literary heroes of his, from Edgar Allen Poe to Gabriela Mistral. There were plenty of shelves, but no books — at some point, much of his collection had been moved to La Chascona (his Santiago home) to protect them from the damp.

The next room was the aptly-named Sala de Caballo (Horse Room). This was a brightly-painted room, with many crafts from Isla Negra artisans on the walls, which enhanced the intended feeling of traveling back in time to Neruda’s childhood. The room centered around a giant wooden horse, which had once stood outside a shop in the area where he grew up. Apparently the boy Neruda announced to the shop-owner that he intended to buy the horse; years later, when there was a fire in the area, the now-adult Neruda wrote to ask if he might buy it after all. The horse’s tail had been burned off in the fire, but Neruda’s friends, at his horse-warming party, brought him three new silky tails for it. In a tiny room adjoining the Horse Room, there was a men’s-only bathroom — the reason being that its walls were lined with vintage postcards and illustrations of women in a state of dishabille.

The final room of the house, and my favorite, was simply called Covacha (if I remember right, it comes from the Mapuche word for “shelter”). It had a wooden floor and roughly-hewn log walls, and it really did feel like a tiny cabin in Southern Chile. There were prints of birds all over the walls, some of which reminded me greatly of Audobon’s work. There were tiny animal figurines stacked atop shelves, and an endless parade of tiny details to take in. On the far wall, there was a mounted desk, the only thing of his father’s that Neruda owned. There was a blocky wood table stretching out from the window; the audioguide told me that this was once the cabin door of a ship, which had come into their possession when it washed up on the shores of the beach beside their house. They reportedly waited all day for the waves to gift it to them. On the table, there was a cast of Matilde’s slender hand. Although I did not experience this myself, the roof was zinc, and Neruda loved to sit in there when it was raining to listen to the patter of the raindrops on the metal.

There was one more room beyond the original house, which the museum foundation had built later on. Neruda had had an enormous collection of seashells, and the audioguide claimed it had always been his wish to have a room where he could display them. In this new room, his collection had been arranged in several glass cases, with tiny labels indicating the family names of each cluster of shells. Some of them were extraordinary: tiny vividly green ones, scallop-shells with spiky fringes lining their exterior, nautilus shells sliced into cross-sections to reveal their fractal architecture, large round shells with so many thin spines that it was a marvel they were still intact, and so on. There was also a giant clam-shell and a narwhal horn. This was an interesting room, but I couldn’t help wondering at the room’s staid furnishing and bare walls — Neruda would never have stood for so much unused space!

After the Sala de Caracoles, I walked thirty feet down towards the sea, to Neruda and Matilde’s tomb. He had once written, “Compañeros, enterradme en Isla Negra,/ frente al mar que conozco, a cada área rugosa de piedras/ y de olas que mis ojos perdidos/ no volverán a ver” (“Friends, bury me in Isla Negra,/ facing the sea that I know, to each wrinkled area of stones/ and to the waves that my lost eyes/ will never come back to see”). And so it was.

Their view.

Their tomb is located on a stone-lined, almost ship-shaped platform overlooking the sea, with a black marble plaque bearing their names and a black stone with Neruda’s fish symbol. The sand over their grave is covered with tiny pink flowers, which I was pleased to recognize as Armeria maritima (sea pink). I sat nearby their tomb for some time, hoping to get a photo of them and their view without people in the shot; however, the stream of new visitors never ended, so eventually I gave up and bade them farewell. It’s a fitting final resting place.

Shrouded in sea pinks.
Shiplike tomb-platform.

On my way out, I stopped at the gift shop and bought two Spanish editions of Neruda’s books I hadn’t owned. Then, I headed back through the handsome, dust-street neighborhood, and crossed the main street to wait anxiously for a bus back to Valpo. The bus shelter was built out of old used bottles, encased in cement and painted with colorful designs.

A man waiting at the bus stop suggested that I could take another bus to someplace else, and that there was a faster bus to Valpo from there, but I politely declined; I’ll take slow over multiple-buses-in-an-unfamiliar-area any day! When the bus finally arrived, I waved it down, and settled in for the long ride back home.

(More photos for you from Isla Negra, mi amor.)

5 thoughts on “January 17, 2012: Isla Negra

  1. What an entry! Fitting that it’s so long and detailed, since Neruda is in large measure responsible for your visit. What an interesting guy he must have been. A nut. We might have liked him. It almost sounds like he had too much time on his hands. I like the idea of a hallway that goes back in time into one’s youth.

    Lucky cat.

    rows of beams: I read that as “rows of beans.”

    A hummingbird is not an insect, by the by.

    Horsewarming. Hahahahaha.

    dishabille: Don’t make me have to figure out word roots.

    Your audioguide sounds nice. What language did he speak?

    I don’t like the verb “gift.”

    Why did the guy suggest a different bus? Was he being helpful, or odd?

    I brought the rain back to California just in time for your return.

    See you soon, little butterfly. Thanks for your blog, and for catching everything up. I’m so happy you got to see Neruda’s beautiful place. Mwah.

    1. When I grow up, I want to have too much time on my hands, so that I may make my own beautiful home-nest like that. I thought long and detailed might be nice, for the sake of Molly-in-ten-years-who-may-have-forgotten-all-these-details.

      When I typed the part about hummingbirds, I thought to meself, “I bet Miss Ginna will comment that hummingbirds aren’t insects.”

      The audioguide was English. But they had them in every language ever, more or less.

      The guy was being helpful, I think. He knew the area better and wanted to save me time, plus the buses didn’t run as frequently where I was waiting.

  2. We don’t need no stinkin’ pictures (though the exterior ones you took are lovely)-you’ve done this house of Neruda’s (and Mathilde’s) justice, too, just with your little ol’ words.

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